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Storyline helps you tell stories with data

How frequently in your teaching do you use simple data to help students understand an important concept or trend, or to create opportunities for students to incorporate data into their own critical thinking around a particular subject or topic? Chances are you use data of some kind fairly frequently, even in disciplines that aren’t known for being particularly data-heavy. (As an example, in literature courses I taught I would frequently talk to students about, say, trends in literacy rates during the period we were studying, or shifts in newspaper circulation and public library memberships. In other words, I would share data that helped contextualize what we were reading in contemporary social, cultural, and economic conditions.)

All too often, when we use data in classes we treat it as something that is fairly static: a printed handout, an image on a slide, or a graph we draw on the whiteboard. There’s nothing wrong with that, exactly, but I often find myself wanting to give students a better entry point into data — and, more importantly, to help students understand the story the data can help us tell. “Teaching with data” is a broad category that can mean many things, but I take as one of its fundamental components a desire to teach students how to think with data and to construct meaning from it. So I was very excited to see that the Knight Lab recently released a tool for creating simple annotated charts. It’s called Storyline, and while its features are minimal I think it has great teaching potential.

Storyline is a web-based tool, and it’s so easy to use that if you know how to make a spreadsheet you can certainly make a Storyline. At the moment, Storyline makes it possible to generate a time-series line chart (essentially, a chart that shows a data variable over time) with up to 800 data points.

Unlike a static chart, Storyline allows you to attach brief textual annotations to individual data points. Here’s what it looks like in action:

The annotations are displayed in sequential order beneath the chart. Interaction with the chart can take two forms: clicking an annotated data point (those shown as circles on the chart) or clicking an annotation bubble beneath the chart. Go ahead — give it a try in the example above. And then keep reading to find out how to create your own…

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